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33 and counting
Pilobolus returns to Boston

Pilobolus returns next weekend to present four Boston premieres on the stage of the Shubert Theatre, the first time the company has performed at that venue, though it’s been a regular visitor to Boston since 1976. Founded five years earlier in a class taught by Alison Chase at Dartmouth College, Pilobolus blasted open the hermetic world of modern dance with a new brand of movement-cum-athletics laced through by the sophomoric humor of a college varsity show. Its style become an alternative to the by-then codified techniques of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and other pioneers of the form. Pilobolus conquered American audiences, then traveled to festivals and theaters worldwide, where it was applauded for its approachable, refreshing manner of presentation. It was as if the kids next door had taken up concert dance.

Indeed, it’s hard to believe that Pilobolus is now in its 33rd season, with a six-member performing company that travels some 49 weeks a year plus an active education institute and occasional forays into the business sector to provide television commercials for companies as varied as Toyota and Bloomingdale’s and workshops for jaded executives. Robby Barnett, one of the company founders, says, "We move from one survival strategy to another. We all know the sands are littered with the bleached bones of failed modern-dance companies. Sometimes we think we’re like the ginkgo tree or the crocodile. We’ve found some primitive means for survival that will bring us through."

Now the father of two teenage daughters, Barnett no longer performs, but he remains one of the artistic directors, along with Chase, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken. Another original member, Moses Pendleton, who’s now director of his own company, Momix, lives nearby in Washington, Connecticut, where Pilobolus is based. The artistic directors manage the company and continue to choreograph the repertory, in collaboration with the dancers.

At first Pilobolus’s style can look like horsing around on stage; then the strength of the bodies and the skill of the craftsmanship becomes apparent, as well as the sophisticated level of theatricality. The training of the current dancers ranges from conventional dance classes to gymnastics, architecture, theater, and the martial arts. A number of the troupe’s alums live in surrounding Connecticut towns and staff the education programs.

According to Barnett, the Pilobolus method of creating dances has remained the same over the decades, with one important difference. "When we began, we were six dancer-choreographers making the work on our own bodies. Now we work with a group of other people. It’s a process of self-analysis. We always begin with a period of creative play. Out of that emerges a series of themes that we can explore.

"Howard Gardner, the Harvard professor of education, either quotes or states in one of his early books that primitive science is that which attempts to classify objects and then weave mythic explanations. To me that’s as close an explanation of the Pilobolus method as possible."

The Boston program will comprise Chase’s Monkey and the White Bone Demon (2001), which is based on the 16th-century Far Eastern novel Pilgrimage to the West; Barnett’s Davenen (2000), which explores the meaning and manifestations of prayer; a duet by Chase for two men called Ben’s Admonition (2002); and The Brass Ring, Tracy’s work for the 2002 Cultural Olympics, which displays the athletic chops of the dancers. Although the company doesn’t make a practice of reviving past works, Barnett says that "we try to include old and new on each program. People are always trying to get us to identify our trajectory. I see it more like a helix or a screw. You go around thinking about kinetic issues or dramatic issues. You circle back on yourself so you’re basically drawing a circle, moving through time, exuding through space. So we’re screwing our way through time."

FleetBoston Celebrity Series and the Wang Center for the Performing Arts present Pilobolus this Friday through Sunday, May 16 through 18, at the Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street in the Theater District. Tickets are $25 to $50; call (800) 447-7400 or visit or

Issue Date: May 16 - 22, 2003
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